Christian-Muslim Relations: Developments of 2006 in Historical Context

By Bijlefeld, Willem | Currents in Theology and Mission, April 2008 | Go to article overview

Christian-Muslim Relations: Developments of 2006 in Historical Context


Bijlefeld, Willem, Currents in Theology and Mission


When we reflect on the present stage of Christian-Muslim relations, it seems logical to pay special attention to theological perspectives on that relationship. But we would misinterpret the present situation and fail to grasp the challenges of the future if we limited ourselves to these theological contributions and overlooked the fact that attitudes toward Muslims and views of Islam apparently are influenced much more directly by political developments and critical public events than by conciliatory declarations from Rome and Geneva. A steady stream of dialogue meetings and a wide range of easily accessible and highly informative texts about Islam seem to have at best a very limited impact on a large segment of the American population.

Two national polls, taken in March and April 2006, suggest a significant rise in negative feelings about Islam. The March survey, conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News, showed since 2002 a 22 percent increase of people with an unfavorable view of Islam. The CBS News poll of April indicated an astounding 9 percentage points increase for this category since February. The figures for unfavorable and favorable were an alarming 45 percent over 19 percent. It should be noted that polls of the Pew Research Center taken between 2004 and 2007 give significantly different numbers for the percentages of favorable views of Islam, but they, too, lead to the conclusion that "public attitudes about Muslims and Islam have grown more negative in recent years": the favorable section down from 48 percent in 2004 to 43 in 2007 and the unfavorable view edging upward from 36 to 42 percent.

One of the questions in several surveys is whether Islam encourages violence. The Washington Post's survey in January 2002 found a remarkably low 14 percent answering that question affirmatively, but four years later the outcome was almost twenty percentage points higher. The CBS News poll placed this category still higher, at 46 percent. While violence was earlier primarily associated with small groups of radical extremists, increasingly Islam itself is seen by many as the motivating factor behind it. The 2007 Pew poll reported a noticeable increase in the percentage of respondents who think that Islam encourages violence, up from 36 in July 2005 to 45 in August 2007. The most striking increase is among white mainline Protestants, up from 28 percent in 2005 to 47.

The same phenomenon was also noticed in Germany. In an article about attitudes toward Muslims in Germany, in January 2006, Eberhard Seidel observed that from 2005 onward Islam itself is seen more and more as the reason for the conflict situations involving Turkish communities in the country. (1)

Especially because of this changing perspective, the remarks about Islam and violence in the September 12, 2006, address of Pope Benedict XVI at the University of Regensburg were unfortunate. (2) Several Muslims challenged immediately the way the Pope dated the Qur'anic verse "there is no compulsion in religion" and contrasted it with later Qur'anic instructions concerning "holy war." But the main point of contention was the Pope's reference to the fourteenth-century Byzantine emperor who challenged his Persian interlocutor with the remark: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." In an endnote to this passage the Pope later explicitly stated that this was not his personal view and that he had quoted this passage "solely to draw out the essential relationship between faith and reason."

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No matter how one interprets this "retreat" and explanation, significant harm was done by what many saw as yet another example of the Western tendency to interpret Islam as a religion characterized by violence. That this event became an incentive for violent outbursts by some extremists has been widely reported.

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